Romeo and Juliet
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme, and touring
Shakespeare's lament on the ill-fated lovers from two warring families has been performed so many times and in so many different ways that you'd imagine it would be difficult to think up new interpretations that would appeal to a modern audience.
Step forward Barrie Rutter, artistic director of Northern Broadsides whose company specialises in demystifying the classics. First of all he's turned the masked ball at the Capulet mansion into a rousing clog dance. Mention that to people living down south and they'd probably think your staple diet of lard sandwiches and black pudding had clogged your brain. But it works. Spectacularly.
Rutter also sees refreshing insights into some of the characters. There's no expression of anger in Mercutio's "A plague o' both your houses" speech; in fact there's almost sorrow as he foresees more bloodshed will follow. It's an arresting performance by Peter Toon.
Fine Time Fontayne portrays Friar Laurence as a hard, passionless and almost unreligious man who's there to sort out the problems that others have stupidly got themselves into. You'll be analysing his portrayal long after you've left the theatre.
And David Beckford as the Prince shows little compassion for the Montagues or the Capulets. His closing speech "For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo" contains an undercurrent of castigation rather than sadness.
This is the second time that the New Vic and Northern Broadsides have co-produced a Shakespeare play. Last year they did The Tempest, parts of which were excellent, but Romeo and Juliet is better, perhaps because Rutter has a smaller role on stage and can concentrate more on direction.
He came over in The Tempest as a scheming magician bent on revenge; here he's a generous and free-drinking host, a disciplinarian who has to be obeyed but also a loving father who's torn apart by the death of his daughter. He's more impressive as Capulet than Prospero.
As with most Northern Broadsides productions, many of the actors can hold a tune or play an instrument. Conrad Nelson's music adds tremendously to the masked ball and drummers hammer out a threatening beat whenever a fight breaks out.
Naturally, a production of Romeo and Juliet stands or falls by the two lead characters. Sarah Ridgeway is a delightful Juliet; she retains the innocence of a teenaged girl yet has had sufficient experience to be able to pull off the role. She brings out the many facets of Juliet's character as she moves from an immature youngster to a tragic heroine.
However, Benedict Fogarty, making his professional debut, isn't as good as Romeo. He's enthusiastic and has a good range of expressions but he didn't convince me he was a lover or a fighter. He appeared to me to be unsure of the meaning of most of his lines and he even looks uncomfortable kissing Juliet because of their height difference.
Another big disappointment for me was Sue McCormick's Nurse. She gets laughs early on in the play when the character is at her garrulous best - but there's no chemistry between her and Juliet.
On the whole, though, there's a lot to enjoy in this modern-dress production, from the excellent staging in the theatre-in-the-round to some of the performances of the minor characters, including Chris Nayak's solid portrayal of Benvolio and Thomas Dyer Blake's effeminate depiction of Peter the nurse's servant.
It's the usual no-nonsense, straight-talking, invigorating presentation from Northern Broadsides which should go down well wherever it's performed.
"Romeo and Juliet" runs at the New Vic until February 15th then tours to Winchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Scarborough, Kingston-upon-Thames, Richmond, Bury St Edmunds, Skipton, Buxton, Halifax and Salford until June 7th
Reviewer: Steve Orme